Are we really serious in saving our environment from further damage?
After years of delay, the Jammu and Kashmir government has put the draft of its maiden State Environment Policy in public domain. The SEP is aimed at conserving and protecting the state’s fragile environment which is confronted with the challenges like loss and degradation of forests and biodiversity, loss of wetlands, deterioration of rivers, alarming rate of air, water and soil contamination, conversion of paddy land for other uses, menace of solid wastes and industrial pollution. Needless to emphasize that environmental conservation is a collective responsibility of people and government and with that aim the SEP calls for participatory approach involving relevant government agencies, private sector, civil society and communities in planning, implementation and decision making process.
Even before the release of the SEP on August 11, the state administration has started ‘ anti-encroachment drive across all tehsils’ from August 2 last. So far district administrations across Kashmir have retrieved 2241.55 kanals of state land and 5115 kanals of kahcharai land from the encroachers in a month-long daily anti-encroachment drive according to the official handout. While no one should oppose the drive that the administration is currently carrying out, what is required is positive approach and genuine appreciation on the ground for it to be affective.
First we must lay out priorities. That means the critical eco-fragile zones, where encroachments have been made, should not at any cost be tolerated. It refers to encroachments related to water bodies, nallahs, forests, highways and public roads. What havoc we have made of our rivers, streams and lakes September 14 deluge taught us bitter way. Today nearly one third we have lost of fascinating Dal lake. Same holds true for Wular lake. River Jhelum we have choked. Many streams are on the verge of extinction. In the bellies of water bodies we have erected houses and malls. Forest land is being grabbed and used for non-forest use despite supreme court ruling in contrary. Even God we have played to shield our materialistic hunger. In His name we have snatched river embankments, forests and highways. How pathetic, we threaten to stamp blasphemy on anyone who dares to expose our religious intoxication. There should be no compromise on decimating these hillocks of greed, reflecting wanton disregard to safe environment, on which hinges our future.
The Kahcharai land, spared for grazing cattle, too has been encroached upon, more so in villages. And bulk of this land has been usurped for raising residential structures, shops, schools and religious seminaries and for cultivating big orchards. To retrieve this encroached land is a gigantic task. While I appreciate the drive, there are certain things that demand rethink and flexibility if the administration aims the drive yield positive results. Increase in population resulted in constructing houses in adjacent kahcharai land. There were other factors contributing to this usurpation. The land one has the legal possession of being low-lying or water-logged or distant from the village, and, in some cases running of high-voltage transmission line over it. The negligence of authorities and their connivance emboldened the people in annexing the vacant Kahcharai land with their other legal holdings like orchards. It did not stop there. The land grabbing instinct showcased its prowess in letting the elephant pass through the needle nostril. Rivers, streams, nallas—every kind of water body—were ‘ stoned’ to death and their stomach ripped open to raise concrete buildings.
Much water flowed down the Jhelum since land settlement done by the Walter Lawrence in 1885 when Dogra Mahaja Ranbir Singh ruled Kashmir. Even though there is not much left of Kahcharai, huge increase in milk production and live stock has been witnessed in all these decades. And it surged with passage of time. This in no way is to defend Kahcharai occupation. It only suggests that usurpation of the grazing land has in no way resulted in decrease of cattle and milk production. But Kahcharai or state land, we must admit, the government needs for developmental utilization like construction of government schools, health centres, community halls, playing fields, panchayat ghars, fire tender stations etc. Though in some villages, ours included– thanks to better community feeling– many acres of land have been specified for such purpose, yet its retrieval cannot be undermined. The compulsions for occupying of this Sarkaree land we have pointed to above. But despite world spinning fast to cope with the new urgencies, our bureaucracy has frozen in indifference. As population increased in cities and towns, as is natural, government of its own provided land – kahcharai, state or other type of land—to build colonies to meet the challenge. Even areas vulnerable to flood were not left.(Flood 2014 exposed the wisdom of our planners in terribly awkward way). The rural people due to same reasons encroached the land they saw vacant for their cattle. They marched cattle to orchards and took possession of the land they knew lack legal claim to hold.
The latest drive by the administration to recover the encroached land, as I have marked, lacks proper planning and reflects unwanted haste in response to court’s whip. To be result-oriented it has to be mindful to the compulsions and open up to suggestions sound in reason and rationale. It must involve civil society and community leaders to facilitate the task it is up to . As I said, there should be no laxity in resolve in removing every kind of encroachments related to water bodies, forest land, high ways and public utility centres and roads. For residential houses or other structures raised on the kahcharai, one thing is clear. Any demolition is neither feasible nor practicable. You cannot flatten entire hamlets. Similarly, cutting fruit laden trees to retrieve the illegal land entails a huge loss to farmers. I suggest two options government should offer to such people. One, ask them to swap land they legally possess against the land usurped for residence or orchard purpose. Or, second, government should levy a reasonably specific tax on the encroachers that should be annually extracted from them. As reports suggest, the anti-encroachment drive reflected class distinction, in the sense that where compound walls made of concrete were not touched, the ones made of tin sheet fencing or raised on just wooden planks were pulled down. The scales have to be even for all and sundry.
By the way for whom the Roshni Scheme was created. If a poor farmer grabs a kanal or two, entire state machinery gears up to pin him down. But the big sharks go for the kill and enjoy the loot and blood. And then why before the very naked eyes of the administration, state executive and judiciary, the unstoppable fast conversion of our agricultural land for non-agriculture use, mostly raising of concrete jungles, happens? That too notwithstanding the fact that there is a legal enactment that bans such conversion. Are we for ever to live on imported subsidized rice and facilitate in loss of this prized land? But who is to lend ears to my dirges.